There is still little documentation of how art creates social and personal change. We must develop this language, argues Charlotte Onslow

Every morning news bulletins wake me to a violent global reality. This morning it was “Libya’s slide into anarchy and its threat to Europe’s security”.

But on some days I pass up current affairs programmes for music, any music. Music talks directly to me, offering another, more peaceful, more enlivening reality.

In the depths of conflict, art can provide respite for those disempowered and made insecure by violence. The hedonism of drama, dancing or music-making during war is powerful. Professor James Thompson reflects on applied theatre as a tool for social change, not just for its capacity-building effects but also for the way if affects people in aesthetic, emotional and sensory ways: “It’s beautiful, sometimes scary, and aesthetically interesting in its own right. We need to learn a language that can talk about these sorts of things in order fully to appreciate what the work is about.”

Dara, a South Asian history play about Islam, has now completed its successful run at London’s National Theatre. Pakistani playwright Shahid Nadeer explained at International Alert’s peace talks on 1 April how his play, originally written for audiences in South Asia, offers insight into the history of Islam and contemporary conflict, violence and extremism in Pakistan and beyond.

For 30 years, Nadeer and his theatre group Ajoka have used performance to transform conversations with thousands of Pakistanis around democracy, pluralism, religion, identity and disenfranchisement. This kind of theatre is helping to build a shared South Asian cultural identity beyond religion.

“By blending drama, poetry, theatre, visual and literary arts with traditional peace-building tools, conflict-affected people can renegotiate power and catalyse dialogue between opposing groups.”

Such arts-based peace-building projects are increasingly seen as complementing institutional and structural approaches to peace-building programming. Art is unique: we experience it through the senses, on a bodily and emotional level. Theatre, music and other creative art forms move beyond discussion and cognitive analysis. They can deeply affect individuals and groups, de-centring people from the world view and polarised standpoints that are common to conflict.

Research by arts project In Place of War in conflict sites around the world reveals how art is used by grassroots communities for violence prevention, socio-political resistance, trauma healing, and reconciliation. Likewise, peace-building practitioners and organisations are utilising the arts and creativity as a force for social transformation. By blending drama, poetry, theatre, visual and literary arts with traditional peace-building tools, conflict-affected people can renegotiate power and catalyse dialogue between opposing groups.

In the highly polarised region of the South Caucasus, where cultural identity forms an intimate part of the conflict dynamic, peace-building groups have harnessed literature to explore the boundaries between cultural and political identity. Publications bringing together the five languages of the South Caucasus have helped cross divides. Using narrative form, well-known writers can safely explore and promote a diverse ‘Caucasian’ cultural identity, as well as celebrating individual ethnic cultural identities, something direct dialogue is less able to do.

Combining literary art with more traditional dialogue methods can help transform and influence political discourse and generate a more conciliatory message around cultural identities, shared cultural values and whether art can play a role in peace. Addressing stereotypes can help to build tolerance, as people rediscover the ‘human’ face of their enemies. Cultural identities run at a much deeper level than political identities.

While the existence of these projects demonstrate the use of creativity for peace-building, there is lamentably little documentation about how art and creativity actively create social, political and cultural change.

Not only is each context different, but the success of art in transforming an individual or group rests with its ability to connect and to elicit an emotional response. As Michael Shank and Lisa Schirch point out in their work on strategic arts-based peace-building, the ‘what’, ‘when’ and ‘why’ are yet to be satisfactorily expanded on by artists, academics or peace-builders. As Thompson says, we are yet to develop the language.

But we must. The World Bank concedes that the majority of Millennium Development Goals will not be met in conflict-affected countries by this year’s deadline, and heralds a bleak reversal of progress if conflicts return. Traditional development and peace-building professionals are increasingly recognising that favouring only facts and figures is hampering our capacity to build peace.

By offering evidence as to how the arts can support peace at different levels, we can leverage creativity for greater effect for those affected by violence.

First published by Open Democracy

Photo title: The Lennon Wall in Prague, Czech Republic

Photo credit: © Tim Lucas